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Japanese education minister's tweet critical of student's political chat draws fire

Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Masahiko Shibayama heads to a Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Sept. 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Outgoing Minister Masahiko Shibayama has sparked controversy by taking issue with a tweet by a high school student who recalled discussing politics during the school lunch break and talking about problems with the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology noted that election campaigning by minors is legally banned. He further questioned a tweet by a teacher who urged high school students not to vote for the Abe administration, saying that the teacher's actions could trigger a violation of Article 137 of the Public Offices Election Act, which bans election campaigning by educators. But the minister's comments were criticized by those familiar with the law.

The controversy arose after Shibayama posted a tweet regarding the introduction of private English tests for university entrance exams in the 2020 academic year, and users identifying themselves as a teacher and a high school student posted opposing opinions. During the exchange of messages, the teacher said to the high school student, "Please tell all the high school students around you never to vote for the Abe administration, which is promoting these policies in the election."

The high school student then replied, "At the high school I attend, during the previous House of Councillors election, we talked about politics during the school lunch break, so I believe the students will make up their own minds and vote. Of course we talked a lot about the problems with the current administration as well."

Shibayama retweeted the posts and asked, "Are such actions appropriate?" He also suggested that the exchange could trigger violations of Article 137 and its section 2 of the Public Offices Election Act, and pointed out that election campaigning by a minor with a particular political party in mind was prohibited by the law. Article 137 of the law prohibits educators from using their positions to conduct election campaigning with students.

Following a Cabinet meeting on Sept. 10, Shibayama pointed out that the Basic Act on Education requires schools to maintain political neutrality, and said it would be inappropriate if an educator were to act in violation of the stipulations. He added it would be possible to ban electioneering by students even if the activities were carried out during the lunch break. The minister went on to state, "I raised an issue (with the tweets) because I thought they could trigger acts running counter to the Public Offices Election Act. I didn't intend at all to restrict political discussion by high school students."

Teruyuki Hirota, a professor at Nihon University who is president of the Japanese Educational Research Association, however, criticized the minister as "jumping too far."

The website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications defines election campaigning as "actions that are necessary and effective for securing votes aimed at electing a specific candidate in a specific election."

"The discussion between the teacher and the high school student does not specify who they are trying to elect in what election, and has no tones of a particular political party. It is not at all close to fulfilling the conditions for violating Article 137 and its section 2. Casually making such statements (as the minister did) could have a chilling effect on the participation of young people in politics and on the education scene," Hirota says.

A guide that the education ministry and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry produced in 2015, when the Public Offices Election Act was revised to lower the voting age in Japan to 18, provides examples of violations of Article 137. They include a teacher calling during class for students to vote for a particular candidate, and having students put up election posters, call out the name of a specific candidate or make speeches for candidates. The online exchange between the teacher and student is not at all close to this.

Jun Katagi, a lawyer familiar with the Public Offices Election Act who formerly worked as a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications commented, "It's clear when looking at the definition of election campaigning that there is no connection with Article 137. Precisely because elections form a cornerstone of democratic politics, we have maintained a rigid definition of what constitutes 'election campaigning.' With the recent start to voting from the age of 18, 'sovereign education' is important, so the head of the education ministry shouldn't make statements that could have a chilling effect. Rather than trying to prevent (students and teachers) from saying something, it's far better to say it and debate it."

(Japanese original by Riki Yoshii, Integrated Digital News Center)

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